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The reluctant mentor

A lifelong teacher, Rusty Wulff has been helping his colleagues with financial matters for years, yet he was convinced he did not have anything of value to share. He was wrong. Here’s what he told me.—By Sonja Penner  

your$ magazine Fall 2013"When you walk into a mall, what’s the first thing you see?” Rusty asked. I’m thinking McDonald’s, but I know that’s not the answer he is looking for. He helps me out. “A map of the mall with an arrow on it that says ‘You are here.’ The map tells you exactly where you are and makes it easy to get to where you want to go. Without the map, I could be wandering around the mall for hours trying to find what I’m looking for.”

I was thankful that we were talking on the phone and Rusty couldn’t see the puzzled look on my face. Where was he going with this? My silence prompted Rusty to fill in the blanks for me.

“Unfortunately, we don’t have a map when we start out to help us navigate finances. I’m a slooooow learner. It took me a long time to get to some point of understanding. I went from Point A to Point B by way of Point C.”

Rusty’s idea
Last year, Rusty started a personal finance group for his colleagues in the Fontana School District. He had been contemplating moving on the idea for a while. The final push he needed came from reading the Dan Otter interview in the July 2012 your$™. “It tugged on me and gave me the courage to move forward.

“Perhaps the hardest thing was to raise my hand and say that if anyone wants help with this, I am willing to do it. It was kind of like asking a pretty girl out on a date. There is the fear of rejection. I knew there was a chance I would put out the call and no one would answer.”

Poll results
Rusty had nothing to worry about. The level of interest was high—more than 70% of the staff indicated an interest in what he was proposing. More than 30% showed up for the meetings.

“I don’t presume to be an expert on any of this stuff, but I sensed that some people were having hard times, and I suppose the confluence of my increased level of interest in this stuff, Act 10 coming down, and the low morale…it made me feel like maybe I could help others get from Point A to Point B a little faster than I did.”

Rusty and SarahGetting started
At the first meeting, Rusty handed out a survey to the group to gauge the level of knowledge and comfort with common financial topics and concepts. “I based it on things that I find myself repeatedly having to deal with while navigating financial waters.”

The survey asked them to identify things they hope to discuss in the group as well as personal goals. It was brief and anonymous. Rusty found there was a lack of confidence overall with financial concepts. And their responses to “What do you hope to investigate with the group?” ranged from “Not even sure what questions to ask” to “How should I be investing at this point in my life” to “When can I retire?”

“It would’ve been a mistake to go ahead without this information. The results of the survey set the stage,” said Rusty.

Initially, Rusty said he sensed a fear of judgment from the group, even embarrassment of what they didn’t know or what they had or hadn’t done financially, but they quickly got comfortable.

The fact that teachers seemed to feel most safe learning this information during class—versus on their own—was telling in itself. “There’s safety in numbers.”

It’s a cultural thing
Rusty brought up the article from the last your$ issue, “Gauging Retirement Readiness” (Summer 2013). It got him thinking about the pervasive issue that educators seem to have with taking control of their finances. “What the teacher from River Falls described—the frustration, the uncertainty, the fear—reflects the sentiment of our staff too.”

Rusty concedes there is an irony here that educators, smart people, find themselves unable to figure out this money thing. “The math is no more difficult than what we ask of our students. In fact, it seems far easier than the emotional and psychological aspect of investing. I think it’s a cultural thing that those of us in education just do not think about money in the same way others do. It’s like a frequency we aren’t tuned in to. In fact, profit is not a word teachers use. If we do, it is usually preceded by two other words ‘not for.’

“There’s this notion that because we are doing this good thing, serving our community, helping children, that we will be taken care of somehow. Teachers are so busy helping other people, they just don’t think about helping themselves. We are almost averse to it at times. But, we need to start thinking differently,” he said.

The counter argument
One thing that has helped Rusty get past this mentality is the idea that by taking care of yourself you are helping others. “I don’t ever want my kids to have to take care of me financially. My parents and my wife’s parents have not put us in that position. Betsy and I are thankful for that.”

It’s a powerful argument when you consider that the number of people caring for an aging parent has soared in the past 15 years. A 2013 Pew Research Center survey reported that 21% of Americans in their 40s and 50s provided some financial support to aging parents.

 The year in review
I had the chance to meet the group last month. It is an enthusiastic bunch—made up of seasoned educators, save for one 20-something teacher. Their assessment of the group’s first year was positive.

  • Kim: “There’s a comfort level in the group. We can participate in the discussion, ask questions, and not feel stupid.”
  • Susan: “Joining the group helped me make time for this important piece of my life.”
  • Noreen: “When my husband passed away, I was suddenly in charge. This has helped me figure it all out.”
  • Mark: “I have a better understanding of what I have, where I am at, and what I need to do.”
  • Kelly: “There’s a sense of community. We’re in this together. We learn it together.”  
  • Lynne: “The convenience of having this at our workplace made it work for me.”  

Rusty adds, “I don’t know how to measure what we have accomplished as a group. But, if I’ve prompted thoughts, if I’ve softened the lingo for them…then I consider it worthwhile. I know Sarah, our young art teacher, started a Roth. That’s a big deal.”

Sarah is 26 years old and just finished her second year in the classroom. Her colleagues see the opportunity she has open to her. She’s learning it much earlier in her career than they did and they are cheering her on.

“I feel very supported—like these guys are all my parents. They care so much for me. I have to do this now. I can’t let them down,” she laughs.

“They are all very excited for her.” Rusty says. “When we ran the compound interest calculator based on her age during one of our meetings, they just went crazy. They were like, ‘Sarah, this could be you.’”

The calculator Rusty is referring to visually shows the dramatic effect compound interest can have on investments. Results are based on monthly savings, interest rate, and starting age. It’s a very cool tool. Try it yourself.